George Walford: Introducing Ideology

TEACH (Technology, Education and Change) is a new pressure group concerned about the impact of microprocessors and other technologies on education. We hope in the next issue of IC to have an article giving an account of its work. In the meantime, if you want to knot more, write to: Colin Mably, S.L.U., [ADDRESS]. TEACH issues a News Sheet, in which the following article has appeared.

New technology is welcomed by some people, resisted by others. Some think the important thing is to protect their present jobs, others that they would be better off with new technology and different jobs. Or better off still with no jobs at all, following their personal interests while the technology does the work. Will this situation change, and if so in which direction? More people welcoming the silicon chip and the changes it will bring, or more people opposing it? The orthodox answer is that education will alter people’s ideas so that they come at least to accept the new methods, but can we be sure of this? Those many people who now resist the new in favour of the old are doing so after generations of universal compulsory education.

One theory that has a contribution to make here is known as “systematic ideology.” According to this there are certain broad, general ideas that govern the way people respond to social problems, new technology among others. The idea that change is usually a good (or a bad) thing. The idea that we ought to work primarily for ourselves (or for the community). The idea that human nature is (or is not) changeable. And so on. These ideas do not come in random assortments but in definite sets. If a person expresses one of these ideas then, given some knowledge of the theory, it can be predicted what others he or she will have. These sets of general ideas are known as “the major ideologies,” and there are only a few of them. We all have our own personal ideas about particular things, about details, but so far as the broad, general ideas go each of us has one or another of these sets. When we change our general ideas we move from one set, one ideology, to another.

These ideologies do not change as society changes. New ones have emerged as society has developed, but once established they are stable. Modern society displays ideologies that primitive societies did not have, but the ideologies those primitive societies did have are still to be found in our technological society today. One general idea found in primitive societies is a belief in magic, and that belief is still fully alive. Science is very different from magic, but many people today have the same beliefs about science as the primitives had about magic. For them, science is magic. The early, simple ideologies persist alongside the later and more complex ones.

The novel thing about this theory is that it says these simple ideologies are not to be despised; they are not things we need to get rid of. They are functional, they are needed in the operation of even the most highly developed technological society. To take one example, the development of productive systems needs precise, sophisticated, scientific thinking. For this purpose a belief in magic is quite out of place. But after the system has been developed it has to be operated, and here it is scientific thinking that is out of place. If the operators spend their time studying how the system works, the scientific laws, the principles, equations and mathematics that are involved in it, they will net get much producing done. The most effective way of operating a productive system is to regard it as the primitive regards magic: as something that works, no need to know how or why.

TEACH is concerned with the future. What sort of society will result from the introduction of the silicon chip? We are often tempted to think of future society as composed entirely of rational people, thinking clearly and on scientific principles. But such visions have an air of unreality about them. They lack interest and depth, they do not have the complexity, the range of difference that goes to make up a living society. Usually this is no more than a vague, unsupported feeling, but the theory of systematic ideology suggests that it is fully justified, an intuition that is supported by ideological research. Society does need also the unscientific ideologies, the unscientific people.

It’s worth thinking about. If you want to know more, write to: Systematic Ideology, [ADDRESS].

from Ideological Commentary 3, December 1979.